Roller coaster phobia

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Roller coaster phobia is a colloquial and slang term describing an individual's fear of roller coasters. While roller coasters are the most popular theme park attraction, certain people feel nauseated, afraid, dizzy, or unsafe when riding roller coasters. In the majority of cases, this fear is related to acrophobia, claustrophobia, or a traumatic event. Roller coaster phobia can be overcome relatively easily, the best cure being going on the tallest/fastest roller coaster before riding roller coasters of a lesser magnitude. Roller coaster phobia has been linked to previously experiencing an accident, vertigo, and fear of heights. In rare cases, riders may be afraid of roller coasters due to a painful ride, tight restraints, being thrown around in the restraints, and excessive g-forces on the body of the rider.


The name of this phobia comes from the Greek word acro meaning "great height."[1] Much of those suffering from acrophobia fear falling more than the actual height.[1] Studies on acrophobics have found that they may be unable to climb to the upper floors of buildings or even climb up ladders.[1] Some acrophobics are perfectly fine when viewing tall structures from the ground, but are unable to keep their composure when at the top of that height. They might cling to the guardrail and avoid being anywhere near the edge of the structure. They tend to be overwhelmed by their fear and are unable to overcome it.[2]

A study in 2005 on the causes of acrophobia found that this phobia might also be related to acute case of height vertigo, which is caused by the inability to maintain balance without adequate visual feedback.[3] When a critical distance between an individual and the closest visible stationary object is exceeded, symptoms of dizziness are triggered. The excessive distance between a person and the ground induces an absence of sufficient visual information used to retain balance.[3]

Because most roller coasters combine substantial heights with seemingly insignificant support, as well as free-falls and the illusion of uncontrolled drops, someone who is an acrophobic would have an extremely negative reaction to riding roller coasters.[4]


Claustrophobia is the persistent illogical fear of small spaces or physical restraint.[5] The name originates from the Latin word claustro, meaning to shut or close.[1] Claustrophobia has two main components: fear of suffocation and fear of restriction.[6] Those who experience claustrophobia in regards to suffocation are affected by small spaces, such as one-person elevators, public restroom stalls, or working under a car for an extended period of time. Their primary reaction to such situations is to have difficulty breathing and panic.[6] These people would also experience claustrophobia when swimming under water with nose plugs or not being able to breathe through their nose during a cold.[6]

However, those whose claustrophobia is caused by the fear of restriction would have the hardest time staying calm in situations where they are unable to move, such as when their hands are tied behind their back or they are tied to a chair.[6] These people are more likely to have coasterphobia than those fearing suffocation.[6] The safety harnesses on roller coaster seats stimulate the feeling of claustrophobia, causing severe anxiety and panic due to the confined space and inability to escape.

Traumatic experience[edit]

Most phobias involving a specific object or situation are thought to be triggered by a traumatic experience during childhood. Even if the actual incident is not remembered, the emotional scarring remains.

People who suffer from coasterphobia, without experiencing acrophobia or claustrophobia, usually had an intense, frightening event that happened while they were still young.[1] The famous psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that exposure to frightening and inexplicable or irrational events while young is a natural part of the developmental process.[7] These events induce healthy associations between certain situations needing caution, such as with sharp knives or a hot stove. The problem arises when those childish instinctual fears don’t subside, but become even more powerful, then developing into phobias.[7] In other words, "the notion is that in a phobic response a single highly traumatic event in childhood is forgotten or repressed, and yet the trauma stimulus still triggers the anxiety of the original event without arousing the whole traumatic memory.[7]

Riding a roller coaster as a young child could possibly be one of these traumatic events. The child subjected to such an experience would be surrounded by deafening noises and screaming, whilst being subjected to intense g-forces and constant gyrations. That child would not understand the situation, and would naturally react with physical and psychological panic and anxiety. These emotions are then inextricably linked to the image of roller coasters, resulting in coasterphobia.

Of course what is particularly interesting is that it is possible that different intensely frightening experiences of a similar nature could become associated with, and trigger, the same response in the roller-coaster situation.[7] Such distinct but related sensitising experiences might include being in a car which veers off the road and overturns, or becoming stuck with other panicking individuals in an elevator which suddenly falls or jerks into motion. These intense sensitising events resulting in "programmed trauma" need not only be experienced in childhood in order to be repressed and lead to associative phobia; so, for example, the emotions resulting from the experience of a car-crash as an adult could, potentially be repressed and transferred to coasterphobia.


Symptoms of coasterphobia are generally classified into two different categories: physical and psychological.[2]

Common physical symptoms include shortness of breath, rapid breathing, irregular heartbeat, sweating, nausea, heart palpitations, and dizziness, although these can vary depending on the individual.[2][7]

The common psychological effects are shown as emotions of fear, anxiety, panic, and dread.[2] In the moments of riding the roller coaster, coasterphobics feel an overpowering and senseless fear of supposed danger, when in reality the situation is completely safe. The fear involved in coasterphobia is difficult to overcome, even when the individual realizes that they are being irrational.[2] According to an article on acrophobia, "Even when sufferers recognize their own irrationality – and are perfectly capable of logical risk assessment – they are however unable to use their reasoning to escape their fear because their dysfunctional spatial perception overrides all other thoughts and triggers their responses."[2]


In 1999, Dr. Michael Otto, Ph.D. – director of the cognitive behavioral therapy program at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School[4] – was hired by Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida to come up with a solution to coasterphobia. Michael Otto worked with fellow psychologist Brian Newmark to develop the Coasterphobia Stress Management Program. This program's goal was to help coasterphobics learn techniques that they could use before and during the ride to overcome their anxiety.[4]

The basic idea of the program was that coasterphobics react with such fear because their minds and bodies naturally respond to a roller coaster’s speed and g-forces, convincing them that they are in real danger. Thus, most of the techniques taught were to teach the coasterphobics to ignore their instincts.[4]

First, the class was taught to tense and un-tense muscles to learn to relax. They performed breathing exercises to control their breathing.[4] The next step was to have them simulate the motions of a roller coaster in order to become accustomed to the accompanying sensations. They circled their heads to induce dizziness and rocked their chairs to mimic how coasters move. They also practiced screaming, which forces you to breathe and makes the experience more enjoyable.[4] After doing these exercises, they watched a passenger perspective video of a few roller coasters while simulating the motions. For their graduation ceremony, they actually rode a roller coaster, where all of the participants rode it not just once, but at least twice.[4]

If you are unable to participate in a course like the Coasterphobia Stress Management Program, there are other self-help techniques that can reduce coasterphobia.[8] Here are some simple steps to take before and during a roller coaster ride:

  1. Make sure you are not being pressured or pushed into riding the roller coaster; this will only add to the feeling of not being in control.[8]
  2. While waiting in line, try relaxation exercises. Practice tensing and slowly releasing your muscles as you breathe in for four counts and out for eight.[8]
  3. It is important that you picture yourself enjoying the strange sensations involved in riding roller coasters. Anticipating fear and anxiety will only make it happen faster and stronger.[8]
  4. Outsmart the "scare factor." Remember that the loops and sudden drops are part of the roller coaster and are perfectly safe.[8]
  5. During the ride, scream. Screaming stops you from holding your breath and helps relieve tension.[8]
  6. Keep your eyes open. Being able to see what is happening actually helps dispel fear and nausea.[8]
  7. If it is your first time, especially if you are afraid of heights, go on the biggest, scariest roller coaster first. Once you get on you will really like it and you won't be afraid of any other roller coasters.[8]

Roller coaster phobia is a relatively common symptom among older adults and young children who have rarely or never ridden a roller coaster of high speed and magnitude.


  1. ^ a b c d e Steiger, Brad; Sherry Hanson Steiger (2003). "Phobias". The Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. 3: 135–140. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Andrews, Gavin J. (2007). "Spaces of Dizziness and Dread: Navigating Acrophobia". Geografiska Annaler Series B: Human Geography. 89 (4): 307–317. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0467.2007.00263.x. 
  3. ^ a b Furman, Joseph M.; Jacob, RG; Sparto, PJ; Olshansky, EF; Detweiler-Shostak, G; Brown, EL; Furman, JM (2005). "Acrophobia and Pathological Height Vertigo: Indications for Vestibular Physical Therapy?". Physical Therapy. 85 (5): 443–458. PMID 15842192. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Minton, Eric (1999). "Thrills & Chills". Psychology Today. 32 (3): 60. 
  5. ^ Lourenco, Stella F.; Matthew R. Longo; Thanujeni Pathman (2011). "Near Space and Its Rekation to Claustrophobic Fear". Cognition. 119 (3): 448–453. PMID 21396630. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2011.02.009. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Claes, Laurence; Smits, D; Decremer, D; Maes, L; Claes, L (2010). "The Dutch Claustrophobia Questionnaire Psychometric Properties and Predictive Validity". Journal of Anxiety Disorders. 24 (7): 715–722. PMID 20558033. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2010.05.003. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Jemmer, Patrick (2005). "Phobia: Fear and Loathing in Mental Spaces". European Journal of Clinical Hypnosis. 6 (3): 24–32. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Hogan, Mary Kate (1999). "The Big Queasy: Getting Over Coaster Phobia". Good Housekeeping. 229 (1): 146.